Mihir Sarkar

Sound Design with Everyday Words

Musicians and music lovers often describe the quality of the sounds they create or hear with words such as “bright” or “warm”, “ethereal” or “metallic”. Our project investigates the relationship between auditory perception and language in this context. We are interested in finding whether people use a common vocabulary to describe timbre, or if their choice of words is related to their musical or cultural background. To this end we deployed a survey where people were asked to assign words to the sounds that were played to them. We analyzed the results and identified how the words correlate with timbral features. Based on this study, we are designing an audio processing engine that can automatically tag sounds in a database for retrieval purposes, and then modify them by using a verbal description of the user’s intuitive expectation (such as “a sharper sound”) instead of technical parameters.


M. Sarkar, C. Lan, J. Diaz, B. Vercoe, “The effect of musical experience on describing sounds with everyday words” [abstract], 157th Meeting of the Acoustical Society of America (ASA), Portland, OR, May 18-22, 2009.

M. Sarkar, B. Vercoe, and Y. Yang, “Words that describe timbre: a study of auditory perception through language” [abstract], Language and Music as Cognitive Systems Conference (LMCS-2007), Cambridge, UK, May 11-13, 2007.

M. Sarkar, “Perceptual Synthesizer”, unpublished project presentation, MAS.641, MIT, Cambridge, Mass., USA, Dec. 2005.